Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Friday, August 13, 2021

If the old trees could speak

Thursday August 12, 2021


Over the transition from July to August, I spent about ten days on Vancouver Island. Five times, I went hiking in old-growth forests. I found it a deeply moving experience.

            I couldn’t tell how this summer’s “heat dome” and drought were affecting the giant firs, hemlocks. spruces and cedars of the old-growth forests. 

            From the ground, they looked fine. Massive trunks soar upwards, 200-300 feet, so straight, so vertical, that they might have been laid out by an engineer with a spirit level. At the top, the canopy of branches opens out into a fretwork vault, lacing the sky with a canopy of needled embroidery. 

            I took pictures, of course. But pictures cannot capture the awe engendered by an old-growth forest. I need Emily Carr’s exuberant brush strokes, her explosive splashes of colour, to bring out the sacredness of these trees. 

            But it’s not all about the cathedral image. 

            Down below, fallen giants nurse new seedlings. Young hemlocks, mostly. One such nurse tree had become a day care for over 30 young hemlocks growing along its length,. The death of an old matriarch had opened a trapdoor of sky to let the light in. 


The wisdom of ages

            I wondered what that forest might say to us, if it could speak. 

            These trees have, after all, had far more years to absorb wisdom than any of us. The bigger trees in old-growth forests have lived 800 years or more. They were around before this province existed, before Canada, before Columbus, even before the Charter of the Forest, a companion document to the more famous Magna Carta.

            Biologist Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees, traces the many ways human evolution has been shaped by our interaction  with forests in his latest book, The Heartbeat of Trees,

            Suzanne Simard, in Finding the Mother Tree, goes further. She helps us see forests as living beings, a community of interdependent life. Blending personal experience with scientific research, she explores the myriad personalities of a deep forest.

            A young woman in Haida Gwai told Simard: “The Coast Salish people believe that trees have personhood too. They teach that the forest is made of many nations living side by side in peace, each contributing to this earth.”

            “Under the forest floor,” she said, “there are fungi that keep the trees connected and strong.”

            Simard’s research has confirmed that indigenous insight. She has proven conclusively that the connections beneath the surface enable the forest to thrive. 

            A forest is more than the sum of its trees. The forest itself is a living, breathing, organism. 

            The forests challenge our obsession with individualism. We have made cult of standing alone, of being ruggedly independent. We are so immersed in rhe cult of individualism that, as Robert Bellah noted years ago, when we think of breaking free of individualism, the only route we can imagine is to be more individualistic.

            No matter how tall it stands, a Douglas Fir, towering in lofty isolation over a clear-cut hillside, will never say, “Every tree for itself.” Or, “I won! I won!” 

            We could learn something from our trees. We are not alone. We live in an interconnected world. 


Copyright © 2021 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.

            To comment on this column, write jimt@quixotic.ca





Bob Atlee got a giggle out of my condensed history of cameras, in the opening of last week’s column. He wrote, “Reminds me of my mother, the consummate liberal-arts grad and techno-Luddite, and her battles with cameras.  She should have stuck with the box Brownie but my Dad insisted on buying her cameras which were just beyond the limits of her ability, let alone patience.

            “I was graduating at the time when she had one of those cameras where you had to select between ‘near, intermediate and far’ and ‘dark, cloudy bright and full sun’.  A camera whose use always sparked a string of expletives. All was quiet in Grant Hall at Queen's University in June 1969, as I walked across the stage to receive my degree.  As the dean extended his hand with the scroll, the unmistakable voice of my mother floated down from the upper balcony: "DAMN!".  Yep, she'd messed up the camera again.”


The column was really not about cameras, though. It was about growing older. James Russell responded, “I have been starting to read another book by Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘No Time to Spare:  Thinking about what matters’.  It is mainly thoughts she had about growing old as she passed her 80th and started a blog.  The title comes from her reflecting on a questionnaire she got from her old alma mater asking the some-60-years-ago grads about their current status, including a check-off list of what they might be doing in their spare time.  Her answer, in part, ‘The opposite of spare time is, I guess, occupied time.  In my case I still don’t know what spare time is because all my time is occupied.  It always has been and it is now.  It’s occupied by living…. I am going to be eighty-one next week.  I have no time to spare.’”


Isabel Gibson is a photographer herself. If you haven’t visited her blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom, I recommend it. Isabel wrote: ”I've heard of people working with just a macro lens when they forgot to pack the regular ones or as an exercise in creativity. You raise the possibility of another such exercise: spending a day with an art filter/setting.

            “In many ways we do come full circle, but the second time around we also (we hope) have the memories of the previous times we were ‘here’, whether that's in a small apartment or in a state of some dependence. A different filter, if you like. I wonder how that will inform our appreciation of the day.”


Sandy Carpenter: Your description of life as a circle is so true! My son took me to the hospital this week for minor surgery. I couldn't drive after the surgery, so I needed him for that, but I also needed him for a second pair of ears!

            “As for the realistic aspect of going 'round in circles, I'm still wrestling with parting with those ‘treasures’ I've moved from home to home.  I'm getting better at being myself without worries of others' opinions, however! I'm a work in progress!”


Ruth Buzzard also resonated with the idea of clearing those “treasures”: “Just what I needed to rethink my packrat mentality.”


On the theme of things going ‘round in circles, Tom Watson recalled the late southern preacher Carlyle Marney: "If you stand on the courthouse steps long enough the parade will come back around."


Jim Hoffman suggested that I should be grateful if my life does go “full circle”: “It's not always pleasant as the circle closes, but there is the satisfaction of finality and completeness.  If possible, as the circle is closing in on us, we should continue striving to do good things, to lend a hand, to reach out to others, to meet and gain new friends, to keep learning new things and to close the circle with love.”




Psalm paraphrase

I took some liberties with this paraphrase of Psalm 111, but I think it fits today’s ecological concerns. 


1          This bright blue planet spins in the vast darkness of space;
let all who live on earth rejoice.

2          Only on this one tiny orb do we know life exists;
let all who live on earth give thanks. 

3          The vision takes our breath away;
let all who live on earth open their eyes. 

4          This fragile marble bursting with life is a work of art;
let all who live on earth recognize God's goodness. 

5          Foxes and fieldmice, humans and whales, eagles and ants --
all are woven together in a tapestry of relationships;
let all who live on earth recognize this reality. 

6          And God has delegated responsibility to us;
let all who live on earth be mindful.

7          We must exercise care not to upset the delicate equilibrium of shared life;
let all who live on earth understand their responsibility. 

8          A tapestry cannot be reduced to a single thread;
let all who live on earth accept their responsibility. 

9          This egg floating in the dark womb of the universe is like God's own embryo;
let all who live on earth treat it as holy. 


You can find paraphrases of most of the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary in my book Everyday Psalmsavailable from Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.






If you want to comment on something, send a message directly to me, jimt@quixotic.ca.

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            I write a second column each Sunday called Sharp Edges, which tends to be somewhat more cutting about social and justice issues. To sign up for Sharp Edges, write to me directly, jimt@quixotic.ca, or send a note to sharpedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

            And for those of you who like poetry, please check my webpage .https://quixotic.ca/My-Poetry I posted several new poetic works there a few weeks ago. If you’d like to receive notifications about new poems, write me at jimt@quixotic.ca, or subscribe yourself to the list by sending a blank email (no message) to poetry-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca (If it doesn’t work, please let me know.)






To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have blocked my posts because they’re suspicious of the web links.

            Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!

            I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.

            Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)



            I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)

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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Soft Edges

Tags: wisdom, forests, Wohlleben, Simard



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